‘A Working-Class Hero’
Honoring our comrade Howard Keylor
The following remarks were made by Henry Johnson on behalf of the Bolshevik Tendency at a meeting held on 9 December 2018 in the ILWU Local 10 hall in San Francisco, to honor our comrade Howard Keylor, a founding member of the Bolshevik Tendency.
I am speaking on behalf of the Bolshevik Tendency—the group that Howard played a central role in for well over 30 years. During his long life Howard has done a lot of things, but he is, above all, a political person. His political views evolved as his understanding developed over time, but his commitment to fighting for the exploited and downtrodden and advocating a revolutionary social transformation has never changed.
Howard is an incurable optimist who has always operated on the basis that a good example can be contagious, given the right set of circumstances. He has never been afraid to “call things by their right names” and “speak the truth to the masses, however bitter it might be.” Howard never curried favor or made political decisions on the basis of wanting to advance his career or get a pat on the head or avoid getting into “trouble.” This attribute is unfortunately rather unusual in leftist politics.
Howard learned long ago that those who look for short-cuts soon end up trimming their program and stretching the truth and before too long idealistic young subjective revolutionaries can end up in places they could never have imagined when they started out.
As a very young man in the U.S. Army at the end of World War Two, Howard witnessed first-hand the hatred and contempt the officer corps had for the enlisted men, and intuitively understood how this reflected the structural inequalities of the larger capitalist social order. Inspired by a vision of the socialist future, he enlisted in the Communist Party as soon as he got out of the army. He did so because he saw the CP as the vehicle by which hunger, war, racism, exploitation and oppression could be ended.
Howard, who was from a plebeian “hillbilly” back-ground, had enrolled in pre-meds, but some CP talent spotter instead rerouted him into the working class, and he ended up in the ILWU. He stayed in the party throughout the McCarthy period, and was important enough to attract interest from the FBI. But he was never entirely comfortable in the Stalinist movement and always tended to be a bit of a leftist deviant. By the early 1960s, with three girls to bring up, he left the CP although he remained politically active in the union.
Then one day in the 1970s he bought a second-hand copy of Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Armed, and stayed up all night reading it. Eureka! He immediately grasped that many things he had never liked about the CP’s line and doubts he had about the Kremlin’s foreign policy had their roots in the Stalin-Trotsky fight during the 1920s. Before long he figured out that the Spartacist League was the real continuity of Trotskyist politics and linked up with them.
In 1974, when Howard came around the SL, it was a very dynamic organization with a healthy appetite for revolutionary work in the unions. Howard was instrumental in launching the Militant Caucus in the ILWU which, within a few years, recorded some impressive successes. But at the same time the top leadership of the SL began to show signs of significant political degeneration. In 1981 this process intersected Howard’s trade-union work rather dramatically during the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike. The SL policy had been to agitate for mass solidarity union pickets to shut down the San Francisco airport. The idea was that if this happened it might be a springboard for launching a general strike. Howard, a member of the Local 10 Exec Board, was ideally situated to head up this work. He arranged for PATCO reps to speak to Local 10 and other unions, and was invited by PATCO to sit in on their strike strategy meetings. And then the SL leadership suddenly announced an internal policy, not to be publicly advertised, of ignoring the union boycott of the struck airports: “Fly, Fly, Fly” was their new slogan.
Howard was caught by surprise. A lot of people in and around the SL had a queasy feeling about this, but only Howard, his wife Uschi and a youth member, Lisa, had the political courage to openly object. Howard has always been a stand-up guy; he was never the type to “adjust” his principles under pressure. The SL leadership became very hostile and had him pushed out of the Militant Caucus.
Howard continued his work in the union and began publishing the Militant Longshoreman. Before long he and Uschi had found some co-thinkers and launched a competing organization—initially known as the “External Tendency,” today the “Bolshevik Tendency.”
The 1984 11-day anti-apartheid cargo boycott was probably the most outstanding single accomplishment in Howard’s storied union career. The SL reacted bitterly, and scandalously attempted to wreck the action, slandering the militants who carried it out as “scabs.” There are at least a few comrades here today who were down on Pier 80 that night and remember what happened.
The SL leadership launched a vicious slander campaign against Howard; they called him a “rat,” an “aspiring bureaucrat” and lots of other ugly things. Some who drank the Jimstown Kool Aid still engage in this sort of stuff—alleging that Howard and his comrades are “alright with crossing picket lines” among other things. Cynical leftists can get pretty nasty. But the fact that some people are still so anxious to malign Howard’s record and the politics he stands for, is, in a perverse way, a sort of tribute. Lenin observed that old revolutionaries are often celebrated and turned into harmless icons by their enemies. Howard hasn’t been—he is still considered too dangerous.
Howard’s exemplary work in the ILWU provides a model for future revolutionary activists. He was able to achieve what he did because, over the years, his fellow union members learned that he was honest, serious, steady and sensible. He was able to explain things, sometimes complicated things like the need for socialist revolution, in ways that made sense. He was also able to work with people on particular projects with whom he had very serious differences. Workers, including those who did not agree with his politics, respected him because they knew that he was absolutely sincere and that he could be trusted to do what he said he would.
Howard understood that without revolutionary organization the working people are only material for exploitation, and recognized that the essential task is therefore to build a viable revolutionary organization rooted in the working class—something much easier said than done.
Howard always had a knack for picking up on whatever possibilities existed at a particular moment to push things forward. The 1984 longshore boycott, which began with a discussion between Howard, Uschi and Bob Mandel around a kitchen table, was ultimately ended by a federal injunction. At that point the united front that carried it out split and Howard’s erstwhile partners folded, while he defiantly helped organize a picket line to keep the pier closed. After an hour, and several arrests, the picket line was dispersed and the boycott was over. But it made a lasting impact. It showed what labor, led by class-conscious militants, was capable of. It was deeply appreciated by black trade unionists in South Africa. Years later, after apartheid was formally ended, Nelson Mandela came to the Bay Area and saluted the longshore militants who had made it happen.
Howard has often remarked that the older he gets the more profoundly convinced he becomes of the validity of the Trotskyist program and the vital importance of struggling to build an organizational vehicle to advance it. Like all great revolutionaries, Howard is motivated by concerns that go far beyond his own immediate personal interests. His life spent participating in a struggle vastly larger than himself has not negated his individuality, but fulfilled it. His devotion to fight on behalf of all the “wretched of the earth” has lifted him up and sustained him and made him the person he is—a working-class hero who is among the very finest human beings who walks this earth. He fought the good fight, and never flinched. He put all his strength and all his ability into the class struggle, and he has made a difference. We in the Bolshevik Tendency are proud to be able to call Howard Keylor our comrade.